Twenty years ago on a rainy May morning I lined up for a road race at the edge of the Berkshire Mountains.
Plot spoiler: I had no idea what I was doing.
Temperatures might, thanks to my generous memory, have hovered in the low 50s, but my clothing wasn’t up to the task. After absorbing all the water my clothing could possibly hold, I went hypothermic. I began shaking almost uncontrollably on the downhills and lost contact with the bunch on a relatively minor climb. I realized I was not, under any circumstances, going to finish the race.
For reasons I can’t explain, there were nearly a dozen non-neutral follow cars behind my race. When I pulled over, so did one of the cars. The event was as inexplicable as I was lucky. She drove me back to the start as I shivered and dripped on her car’s leather interior.
I grabbed my clothes and went inside the bike shop that sponsored the race. Inside a dressing room, my kit went shplorp on the floor. And I looked at myself. Aside from how wet I was, I realized I was covered in road grime. What to do? When I had lived in the South, I just drove home wet, muddy or whatever. In my cycling clothing. I had never before been both wet and cold following a race and I knew I needed to get dry STAT.
I ended up using my T-shirt to wipe off and then wore my sweater with no shirt. I vowed never to arrive at a race so unprepared again.
I began carrying a towel, and later added a washcloth when I rendered the towel unusable following a muddy mountain bike race. My learning curve was steep.
A year later I was at a race in Pennsylvania when a teammate scandalized a neighborhood by standing a few yards from a street corner—stark naked—and slathered his body with a Sea Breeze-soaked wash cloth. I realized he was onto something as far as getting clean, though I also thought that there might be room for a bit more discretion.
In addition to the towel, I began carrying water. Then I upgraded from a bath towel to a bath sheet. In 1996 I learned about the Sport Kilt. With all the features of a kilt and the added convenience of Velcro, I was sold. In seeking to be discreet, I noticed that passersby looked less if it didn’t look like you were wrapped in bathroom attire.
I added plain deodorant (no antiperspirant) in an effort to make post-ride refueling more pleasant for anyone in my proximity and as I had learned, that proximity was directly proportional to how hard the ride or race was.
The last and best trick I picked up on was given to me by a new mom. She turned me on to zip-locked bags of baby wipes. I added a little extra water to make them extra-moist. I’ve found nothing else as adept at removing embrocation.
I quickly learned that a regimen of a gallon of water on the legs to wash away sweat, grime or mud followed by baby wipes, a quick towel-off, then deodorant would allow me to dress, have a meal and drive home without feeling like Bill Murray after he got slimed in Ghostbusters. As nothing short of a proper shower could do anything for my hair, a baseball cap became as indispensable a part of my gear bag as that Sport Kilt.
For a while I traveled with sandals that made changing easy, but I could never get used to driving in them. Eventually, the sandals went in the trash and I went back to my high-school standby: slip-on Vans.
Naturally, no learning curve is ever complete. Any time I think there’s a chance conditions will be anything short of stellar, I bring along a plastic laundry bag equipped with a drawstring closure. A dozen years ago a friend and I went to a race in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The roads of the race were decorated with farm-field runoff. You can guess what flavor the air carried.
We cleaned up after the race and made a stop for lunch on the way home. Half an hour later I unlocked the car to a stench that made our eyes tear. We drove up the Grapevine, crossing the 4000-foot elevation mark in February with the windows open.
Whenever I think my gear bag should be smaller I remind myself that I’m glad I can no longer recall exactly how my car smelled.